An appreciation for a forgotten director

December 12, 2008|By Evan Haga | Evan Haga,Special to The Baltimore Sun

In the decades following their 1939 releases, The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind became undisputed cinema classics.

Victor Fleming, who directed both pictures, became one of Hollywood's forgotten filmmaking masters.

That unfortunate obscurity is what prompted Baltimore Sun film critic Michael Sragow to spend a decade writing the first definitive Fleming biography, Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master, available now from Random House.

"Why write the 20th book about Hitchcock or the 50th book about John Ford or the 30th book about Brando? That's exactly why I wanted to do it," Sragow said.

To celebrate the newly released biography, the Maryland Film Festival is sponsoring a rare screening Tuesday at the Maryland Institute College of Art's Falvey Hall. The film, 1933's Bombshell, is a long-lost gem from the long-lost director and was chosen for the same reasons Sragow wrote his new book.

"The two obvious [films] would've been The Wizard of Oz or Gone With the Wind, and it seemed like they're out there - people have had plenty of chances to see them," said Jed Dietz, Maryland Film Festival director.

So who was Victor Fleming, and why do film buffs need a new tome to know how great he was?

Despite Fleming being one of Hollywood's most powerful directors throughout the 1930s and '40s - he died in 1949 after making the Oscar-winning but troubled Joan of Arc - his legacy has taken a beating.

The causes are myriad. Untruths have been spread that question his contributions to his two greatest films, which Fleming essentially "saved" after the original directors were fired. He also worked during the studio era, when directors weren't celebrities outside the filmmaking industry, like the Spielbergs and Scorseses of today.

A gracefully masculine, supremely self-confident man, he didn't hire publicists. He harbored what Sragow calls a "colorful personal life," including affairs with starlets Clara Bow and Ingrid Bergman, but didn't exploit those relationships or speak "about women as if they were conquests."

Then there was the work, terrifically crafted but lacking the signature style that defined Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford as film auteurs in the postwar period.

Working in genres from fantasy (Oz) to Southern epic (Gone With the Wind), erotic drama (Red Dust) to children-friendly adventure tales (1934's Treasure Island) and more, Fleming's versatility was astounding.

"He made both Ted Turner's and Joseph Stalin's favorite movies," Sragow said with a chuckle. "There's got to be something to say about a guy who can do that."

Bombshell represents another interesting diversion, a satirical look at classic Hollywood's star-making machine. Dietz and his colleagues at the Maryland Film Festival were able to obtain an archival print direct from Warner Bros. On Tuesday, John Standiford, the Charles Theatre projectionist who helped revitalize that historic venue in the late 1990s, will spin the print.

"Most people will never get a chance again to see this on the big screen," Dietz says of Bombshell, which is not available on DVD. Regarding Fleming's overall legacy, however, Dietz sees renewed longevity.

"I knew who Victor Fleming was ... but I had no idea about his story until I read Michael's book," he said.

if you go

See Bombshell at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Falvey Hall in MICA's Brown Center, 1301 Mount Royal Ave. Michael Sragow will be there to answer questions and sign copies of Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master. Tickets are $3; $5 for two. Go to md-filmfest.com.

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